By Andrew Ganz
Wednesday, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:45 am
 
This prize fighter came out punching and jabbing when it first made the automotive rounds back in 2005, but a few seasons of neglect left the Chrysler 300C feeling like yesterday's news.

A new workout regimen and an Italian trainer have revitalized this once-superstar back to a formidable athlete. His swagger's still there, but charm school and the gym have reworked his mojo. Let's toss him in the ring for a tryout to see if the revised Chrysler 300C can make as big a splash today as it did more than half a decade ago.

What is it?
Topping the Pentastar brand's range, the Chrysler 300 is, along with its Dodge Charger sibling, the last remnant of Detroit's full-size muscle sedan past. With rear (or all) wheel-drive and an available (seen here as the 300C) 363-horsepower HEMI V8, the 300 boasts way more refinement than its predecessor.

Chrysler revived its historic 300 letter-series nameplate in 2005 when it took advantage of the laughably disjointed "merger of equals"Ě with Daimler-Benz by plunking a low-slung, Bentley-lite body on an old midsize Mercedes-Benz E-Class platform. Its undeniable swagger and big V8 muscle made up for a lousy interior and underperforming entry-level V6s - at least for a while. As Chrysler wandered down the path to its inevitable bankruptcy, the 300 also suffered.

But just as the automaker enjoys a new lease on life thanks to now-shed federal bailout and a big investment from Italy's Fiat, the 300 also gets a chance to reboot. An all-new V6 will power most 300s with far more authority, while all models gain big suspension tweaks, a new interior and a modestly revised look. It might feel similar on the surface, but the 300 is essentially an all-new model for 2011.

Our tester came loaded to the gills, although a new 300C SRT8 is headed to showrooms soon. Stay tuned.

What's it up against?
In many ways, the 300 stands on its own with no full-size rear-wheel-drive mid-luxury rivals. The smaller BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class cost way more with V8s, and while crosstown rivals from Ford (Lincoln MKS) and Buick (LaCrosse) might not be bad cars, they feel like Hertz specials after a spin in the 300.

We think buyers might do best pairing the 300 against the Cadillac CTS, Hyundai Genesis and Saab 9-5 Aero. Although the big Chrysler offers way more grunt, this Detroit-Korea-Sweden trio counters with more luxe, similar dimensions and appealing road manners at comparable prices of entry.

Any breakthroughs?
The big news here is the overall package - there's more to go with the new look than meets the eye. Beneath the surface, Chrysler says its engineers tackled everything by revising most of this 15-year-old platform to bring it up to speed with new steering, suspension upgrades and better brakes.

Inside, the look is positively new Chrysler as it sheds the bargain-basement rock-hard plastic for luxurious styles made from intriguing new materials.

Our tester came optioned up with Chrysler's new SafetyTec package. At $2,795, it ain't cheap, but it does add a full bevy of tech: Adaptive HID headlamps, forward collision warning (we didn't test it), blind spot and cross path detection (which works wonders in parking lots), adaptive cruise control and front and rear parking sensors, among a few other bobbles and bits.

The HEMI V8 mostly stands pat, including its five-speed automatic transmission. An eight-cog unit is on the way, Chrysler promises.

How does it look?
Unmistakably a full-size 21st century Chrysler, the 300C is nonetheless different from head-to-toe compared to its predecessor. The low-roof look, boxy lines and big wheel arches are back, but they're more expressive than before.

Actually, the roof has been raised, but careful plucking and pulling at the pillars has helped the 300C retain its chopped-and-channeled look while adding interior headroom and improving outward visibility.

Up front, the 300 features Chrysler's new wave-style grille, an inoffensive look that borders on bland anonycar compared to the old model's Bentley style. Flanking the grille and seemingly continuing the beach theme are a pair of seagull-like squinting head lights with LED running lamps.

Round the corner - and it truly is a corner - and you'll find a smoother, simpler side profile, the aforementioned raised roof and bulging wheel arches filled, in the case of our tester, with 20-inch alloy wheels.

Continue the tour and you'll find that fins are back in style again. Rejoice, fans of Americana! The 300's tall clear-finish tail lamps and integrated fin-style trunklid flaring are miles ahead of the bland red blobs seen on the outgoing model.

Our only kvetch: In its effort to amp up V6 models, the 300C is mostly devoid of exclusive styling touches.

And on the inside?
If you're a regular around these parts, you might start thinking that we're getting a little spiff every time we lavish praise on a new Chrysler interior. If that's the case, they must have lost this writer's mailing address up there in Auburn Hills because the checks haven't been flowing.

Perhaps it's because we spent so many years strapping ourselves into middling (best case) and miserable (worst case) interiors, which seemed ill-matched to expressive exterior styles. No longer. The 300 follows a trend set first by the Ram 1500 and then by the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango by offering truly world-class style and finishings for the money.

A big central touch-screen display takes center stage in the 300's symmetrical dashboard, flanked by attractive low-sheen metallics, dark-stained woods and premium rubbers and vinyls. Switches operate with precision and are properly laid out, especially the company's new infotainment system. Fast and functional, the touch-screen's menus are intuitive and clear - especially in contrast to Ford's complex and clunky MyFordTouch.

A thick-rimmed steering wheel with a '90s-style gargantuan horn pad affronts the driver, occasionally blocking view of the light blue-lit gauges and trip computer. Chrome rings around the gauges feel a little garish, but the overall look is fittingly bold.

The 300 has ample room for five and its newly-designed seats are covered in a premium leather rarely before seen in Chrysler products (Ricardo Montalb√°n would be proud). The front chairs are heated and cooled and offer plenty of support and adjustment. Door panels, an often-forgotten tactile element, are trimmed in similar pebble-finish rubber and dark-stained wood, although our tester's window controls felt a little flinty in their operation.

But does it go?
Although the 300 shares its powertrain and platform with the Dodge Charger, the Chrysler job gets its own suspension and exhaust tunings to emphasize its luxury-level positioning. Chrysler hit the mark on this one: The 300 is cossetting when it needs to be, but a willing dance partner when it comes time to tango through the twisties.

Credit goes in part to Mercedes-Benz, which certainly knows how to engineer a luxury-level platform. Even though this basic architecture might date back to the mid-'90s E-Class, the underpinnings take rough roads in stride, with careful tuning helping to dampen harsh impacts. But don't count out the Americans: The latest round of upgrades, which included a thorough bushing, spring and strut rethink, adds more confidence to an already impressive platform.

But the biggest change comes from the tiller's new steering gear system. Vastly more precise than before, it offers excellent control and reasonably good feel that adds confidence, control and, amazingly, tossability - no small feat considering the 300's 4,270 lbs. curb weight hardly makes it a lithe track star.

This brute sure can move when called upon, however. The C designation brings with it a 363-horsepower version of Chrysler's 5.7-liter HEMI V8. Although purists will point out that it isn't as hemispherical as its big engine shroud lettering suggests, they won't argue with the grunt. Adding to that pony figure is a solid and accessible 394 lb-ft. of torque, which comes on strong peaking at a low-ish 4,200 rpm.

Fuel economy? We pretty met the EPA's figures of 16 in the city and 25 on the highway, the same numbers as the outgoing 300C.

The 300C doesn't feel overwhelmingly fast, but it never struggles to move and its five-speed Mercedes-Benz-sourced automatic promptly downshifts when called upon, although the eight-cog unit should use a little less gas. If you're in the playful mood, Chrysler's weird side-to-side Autostick lever lets you row the gears on your own. Paddle shifters apparently weren't deemed appropriate for this iteration.

Those expecting a V8 grumble won't be satisfied; the 300C's exhaust has been tuned to provide little reminder that there's a NASCAR-like mill under the 300's long hood. This one's a silent beast.

Why you would buy it:
60-large for a German Q-ship doesn't make as much sense in this economy.

Why you wouldn't:
Detroit luxury needs hood-mounted portholes to meet your expectations.

Leftlane's bottom line
Vastly improved in every way, the 300C makes as strong a case for itself now as it did back when it wowed audiences in 2005. Under its familiar-but-new style, everything is dramatically improved, making the 300C an easy-to-justify upgrade if you're in the market for big luxury and performance without a premium car price tag.

Finally, you won't have to make many sacrifices to save $20,000.

2011 Chrysler 300C base price, $38,170. As tested, $44,730.
Package 29T, $650; SafetyTec package, $2,795; Panoramic moonroof, $1,295; Polished 20-inch wheels, $995; Destination, $825.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.